KBA in Focus: Amboseli National Park

By Ednah Kulola and Joshua Sese

Located in the footsteps of Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, and approximately 210 kilometres southeast of Nairobi in Kajiado County, is Amboseli National Park Key Biodiversity Area. The name Amboseli comes from the Maasai word meaning “salty dust”. Amboseli N.P. is characterized by wooded savannah grassland with permanent herbaceous swamps and marshes, alkaline pools and the dry lake basin of Lake Amboseli that fills up during the rainy season.

The park is home to vast biodiversity. It is an expansive wilderness hosting five mammal and 17 bird species classified by IUCN as threatened (Critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable). The mammal species include some 1,800 endangered African Elephants (Loxodonta africana), and African Lion, Cheetah, Hippopotamus, and Maasai Giraffe. Amboseli N.P. is an Important Bird Area with over 400 species of birds, among them globally threatened species such as White-backed, Lappet-faced and Ruppell’s vultures, and Malagasy Pond Herons. It is one of the six biosphere reserves in Kenya – sites nominated by countries and recognized under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme to promote sustainable development based on local community efforts and scientific data.

Climate change, falling pasture productivity, habitat loss, water diversion, poaching and the rising human population in adjacent communities, remain the biggest threats affecting the Amboseli ecosystem. Constant land fragmentation for commercial agriculture, settlement expansion, and infrastructural development has led to the isolation of wildlife populations and inteferences with their migration routes. Increased contact between humans and wildlife has also led to an intensification of human-wildlife conflicts. Invasive species, both native and exotic, have infested large swathes of the park’s wetlands, further impacting on its ecosystem dynamics. Illegal extraction of resources such as logging, charcoal production, and sand harvesting within and around the park have played a role in the degradation of the precious ecosystem.

A collaborative approach between government agencies, conservation organizations, local communities, and other stakeholders is essential to ensure the long-term survival of Amboseli and its biodiversity. The approach would include actions such as effective law enforcement, community engagement and empowerment, habitat restoration, sustainable land use planning, and climate change adaptation strategies. To this effect, two management plans (Amboseli National Park Management Plan, 2020-2030 and Amboseli Ecosystem Management Plan 2020-2030) were launched in 2020 and are now in the implementation stage. In collaboration with the Amboseli Ecosystem Trust and partners, the Kenya Wildlife Service has also developed human-wildlife co-existence protocols to guide response to negative human-wildlife interactions. At the moment there is a new initiative to change Amboseli N.P. to become a National Reserve managed by the County – a slow and cumbersome legal process whose outcome is unclear.

Violet-Backed Starling, the Kakuzi Affair

By Simon Odhiambo (Kenyanbirder)

Of the over 200 bird species I have spotted within the Kakuzi ecosystem in Makuyu north of Thika, the Violet-backed Starling strikes me as an interestingly beautiful bird with a unique plumage that makes its identification a walk in the park. I see them from time to time perching on the fencing posts, sometimes not bothered by my presence, most of the time hardly giving me a chance to recall their name as I am left mumbling to myself ‘… that was a Violet-backed Staling. The violet back means it is male and the other duller one that took off after him is female. I know they will be back again…’

Early this month, I noticed a male Violet-backed Starling busy collecting ‘dudus’ from the ground, grass and tree-barks. I say ‘collecting’ because it made several flights, back and forth, and each time leaving with a beak full of wriggling caterpillars and coming back with an empty beak, so to speak, for more. Of course there were occasional squabbles between it, an Abyssinian (Olive) Thrush, a Fork-tailed Drongo and the noisy White-browed Sparrow Weavers on whose territory these birds were trespassing.

On 18th February 2024 during the Sunday Monthly Bird Watch at Kakuzi, I learnt that the Violet-backed Starling is generally considered a migratory bird. ‘I see them here all the time’ was my response. ‘There are very few recordsof them breeding in Kenya’ said Fleur, as I narrated my observation.  These return-trips can then be read as the usual feeding behaviour by other birds whenever they have hatchlings in their nests. If this is true then this could be an interesting record at Kakuzi!

Meanwhile, a Ruppell’s Robin Chat continued singing and mimicking other birds calls, undisturbed … until the female Violet-backed Starling joined the male for a round of caterpillar collection.  There was spiteful chase that didn’t last long. The singing continued.

I consider the Kakuzi ecosystem an ecotone inviting various bird species. hence making it an interesting area to go birding.  A Black-headed Orioles call echoes from my garden, I lose my line of thought. Did I mention that all along I had my camera with me and managed to get some shots of the Violet-backed Starling?

I remain hopeful that the fledgling will soon accompany the parents for water or to be shown the feeding grounds. Fingers crossed!

2024 World Wetlands Day highlights

By David Odhiambo

The World Wetlands Day 2024 was marked on 2nd of February 2024 with the theme “Wetlands and Human Wellbeing”. Nature Kenya collaborated with nine community groups to mark the day.

In the west, Friends of Dunga Site Support Group engaged with the local community in awareness creation on conservation of wetlands at Dunga Beach, reaching over 1,230 people, including 800 school children. Kakamega Environmental Education Programme organized 256 community members and stakeholders at Chirobani Primary School to plant 1,000 assorted indigenous tree seedlings along River Shitiya. And Kanyaboli Ecosystem Site Support Group reached out to 89 people in awareness creation towards conserving the Lake Kanyaboli ecosystem in Yala Swamp.

At the lakes, Lake Elmenteita Community-based Organization partnered with Lake Elmenteita Serena Camp to celebrate the day. Eleven volunteers from the SSG conducted a clean-up, collecting about 9 kg of waste. The SSG also shared the importance of the lake as a habitat for Lesser Flamingos, Great White Pelicans and other waterbirds with the local community. At Lake Ol’Bolossat, the Nyahururu Bird Club engaged 700 people to plant 850 tree seedlings.

At the Coast, the Sabaki River Conservation and Development Organization engaged 166 people, including 70 school children, to plant 1,500 mangrove seedlings and collect about 200 kg of waste in a beach clean-up exercise at the Sabaki River Mouth. The Mida Creek Conservation Awareness Group organized a bird walk to mark the day; and the Dawida Biodiversity Conservation Group in Taita Hills planted 30 tree seedlings.  In Tana River Delta, the Tana River Conservation Network marked the event in Tana River and Lamu counties. Poems, traditional dances, speeches and clean-ups were part of the proceedings during the events. More than 240 people were reached, including 139 school children.

Wetlands and human wellbeing

By John Mwacharo

In Kenya, a country blessed with many natural wonders, wetlands play a crucial role in supporting biodiversity, sustaining livelihoods, and providing vital ecosystem services like filtering and storing water, controlling floods and erosion, sequestering carbon and supporting fisheries, among others. World Wetlands Day, celebrated on February 2nd each year, provides an opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of wetlands for our planet’s health – and ours.

Wetlands are places where land and water meet and support characteristic biodiversity. They are important economically, ecologically and socially, yet Kenya’s wetlands face numerous threats. These include unsustainable exploitation of wetland resources, encroachment and conversion, habitat destruction and climate change. Most of our wetlands are not under any form of state protection. Others are seasonal, like the wetlands in Dakatcha Woodland (see page …), and lie on private land.

The conversion and degradation of wetlands endangers biodiversity, disrupts essential ecosystem services, and poses risks to the livelihoods of local communities. Over the years, Nature Kenya has worked closely with various stakeholders to conserve some of the country’s wetlands.

Tana River Delta

The Tana River Delta is Kenya’s largest delta. It is a designated Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), a Ramsar site as a wetland of international importance, a Global Biodiversity Hotspot and a proposed World Heritage Site. The Delta supports immense biodiversity of global significance. Over 250,000 people practising crop farming, livestock rearing and fishing depend on it for their livelihoods due to its varied, extensive and productive habitats. Tana River Delta, however, faces many threats, including over-exploitation of natural resources, poor land use practices, unregulated human settlement and unsustainable large-scale agricultural development.

Over the years, Nature Kenya has worked with local communities and other partners to conserve the Delta. In 2011, Nature Kenya led a collaborative effort by various stakeholders in the development of a Tana River Delta Land Use Plan (LUP) that was guided by a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). The process was concluded in 2015. The Land Use Plan has since been approved and adopted as a policy by the Lamu County government and is currently under implementation. Nature Kenya is also promoting the Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas (ICCAs) approach. Community Conservation Areas are biodiversity-rich sites partially or largely managed by local communities.

Yala Swamp

Yala Swamp is the largest inland freshwater wetland complex in the country, sheltering a great variety of birds, fish and mammals, including some threatened ones, and thus a KBA. Yala Swamp provides useful environmental services like filtering out harmful pollutants from water flowing into Lake Victoria. The swamp is also a source of livelihood for many communities.

Nature Kenya is working to reduce pressure on the swamp for natural resources by supporting community nature-based enterprises like climate-smart agriculture, fish farming, beekeeping and papyrus weaving. Nature Kenya is also working with like-minded organizations in advocating against the controversial allocation of half of Yala Swamp for sugarcane growing by the National Land Commission (NLC); and to push for the sustainable use of the swamp’s resources to benefit local communities and biodiversity.

Sabaki River Mouth

The Sabaki River Mouth, where the Athi-Galana-Sabaki River meets the Indian Ocean, is a vital link between freshwater and marine ecosystems. It provides a critical habitat for migratory birds and supports a diverse range of marine life. The mangroves along the river mouth act as a nursery for juvenile fish, ensuring the sustainability of fisheries in the region. Despite its invaluable ecological and economic importance, Sabaki River Mouth KBA faces many threats, including sand harvesting, fishing with illegal gear, illegal mangrove pole harvesting, discharge of solid waste and effluent, encroachment and land grabbing.

Nature Kenya and other stakeholders are undertaking several conservation actions to safeguard the estuary. These include supporting the development of the River Sabaki Estuary Management Plan 2022-2032, led by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in collaboration with the Kilifi County Government and other stakeholders.

Nationwide, Nature Kenya is working with 11 site support groups (SSGs) in 11 KBAs to promote wetland conservation through site restoration, monitoring, advocacy, awareness creation and environmental education activities.

Clarke’s (Kilifi) Weavers nesting again in seasonal wetlands

By Fleur Ng’weno

In July we brought you the good news that Clarke’s Weaver had been seen again after six months and a long drought. Flocks of males, females and juveniles were seen in Dakatcha Woodland in Magarini sub-county, Kilifi County (as this bird is found only in Kilifi County, we are beginning to call it Kilifi Weaver).

The good news this year is that Kilifi/Clarke’s Weavers were breeding again in the seasonal wetlands of Dakatcha Woodland. It rained heavily in November and December, filling the seasonal wetlands, and sedges and water lilies grew rapidly. The weavers nested in Nature Kenya’s Kamale Nature Reserve and a smaller wetland to the west, and small flocks were seen in the big Bore (Munyenzeni) wetland near Marafa.

Despite the successful breeding and regular monitoring, however, we still do not know the size of the Clarke’s/Kilifi Weaver population. These Endangered birds are only known to nest in seasonal wetlands – sites that fill with water and water plants during the rainy season. Because these wetlands become dry in the dry season, they are often overlooked and subject to demarcation for other uses. Yet seasonal wetlands play a critical role in the ecosystem – in this case, supporting a species threatened with extinction.

Clarke’s/Kilifi Weavers are different from most other weavers in that they feed mostly on insects and small wild fruits. Parent birds could be seen bringing fat green caterpillars to feed their young. Their breeding cycle is also very rapid: the eggs hatch quickly, the young grow fast and soon fledge and fly – enabling them to make use of temporary, seasonal wetlands.

During January, Julio Mwambire and Maxwel Issa of Dakatcha Woodland Conservation Group took many birders to see the endangered birds at their nesting sites.